Originally published on metropolis.co.jp on February 2010
The cover of Qomolangma Tomato’s latest album shows a person—either a woman or a heavily lipsticked man—with their head draped in a slimy octopus. It’s a grotesque yet striking image that serves as a counterpart to the album’s title, Camouflage.
The key to understanding the message, according to singer Naruto Ishii, lies in the third track. “The title of the song ‘Doyou’ means ‘disturbed heart,’ so the theme of the album title is about camouflaging your feelings,” he tells Metropolis at the band’s rehearsal studio.
Is Ishii’s heart disturbed?
“A lot of our songs emerge out of darkness, but with a positive message, to raise yourself above it,” he answers. When I suggest that Qomolangma Tomato’s songs might go down well with hikikomori, he laughs. “But of course, even if they liked our music, hikikomori—being stay-at-home types—wouldn’t come to our shows!”
Rather than the suicidal Kurt Cobain/Joy Division sort, the members of this quartet from Yokohama come off as the epitome of latter-day, soshoku-kei (herbivorous) Japanese youth. Their songs are often introspective, delivered in Ishii’s high, clear, almost childlike voice and backed by a rhythm section (guitarist Naoya Ogura, bassist Haruo Yamanaka and drummer Mikio Daikuhara) that tops up their ’90s indie rock influences with soaring, psychedelic guitar refrains and the merest whiff of a dance groove.
Since forming seven years ago just out of high school, the group has released three albums, striking a chord with Japanese youth that has allowed them to tour the country—if not give up their day jobs.
And while the members do come off as sensitive types in person, it’s as much their sense of fun as their introspectiveness that endears them to young Japanese. The group’s name, like many of their songs, is based in wordplay.
“It has no particular meaning,” he says. “There aren’t many bands that begin with the letter Q, so I thought it would stand out. I also liked the way it ends in ma-to-ma-to.”
Later that week at a concert in Shibuya, the band belie the somewhat morose image they gave off at the practice studio. Ishii jumps about, reaching sing-songy high notes and occasionally hammering out a short line on his guitar. The crowd loves it.
But Ishii is looking for something more than what the Japanese rock scene offers. Next month Qomolangma Tomato will be backing evergreen UK indie rockers The Wedding Present. And when he thinks about the Japanese scene, it’s with a sense of frustration.
“The good point is that there are so many fascinating bands, but the bad point is they can’t make a life playing music. It’s disappointing that our culture doesn’t support interesting groups,” he says.
“When we started out we looked into gigging in Tokyo, but it was a matter of paying ¥40,000-¥50,000 to play. I thought that was lame. There’s no culture like in the West, where you go to have a drink casually, and there happens to be a band playing.”
The solution, he says, was to stick to the band’s roots in one of Japan’s most westernized cities.
“We finally found a few places like that in Yokohama, and we would play with friends’ bands. When you begin to attract some fans, you can start to dictate your own terms. But it seems strange that a band starting out has to pay to play. I think back and wonder, why?”
Tokyo indie rock quartet. Apr 7, 7pm, ¥2,800 (adv)/¥3,300 (door). Shibuya O-Nest. Tel: 03-3462-4420.
Camouflage is available on Avocado Records.